“BLOOMSBURY: PRAFUL PATEL GOT AN OUT-OF-COURT SETTLEMENT WITH KEEPING ME IN THE DARK.”
This is just another instance of publishers succumbing to pressure, either from politically correct activists or politicians who may find certain books inconvenient. Falling in the same category is former Air India executive director JITENDER BHARGAVA’S book, The Descent of Air India. All copies of it were withdrawn by Bloomsbury Publishing early this year under pressure from Heavy Industries Minister Praful Patel and an apology was proffered to him. The book, released in October 2013, lays the blame for Air India’s downfall on wrong decisions and political interference. Bhargava tells SHOBHA JOHN that he is unfazed and will get his book re-published.
Q: In the light of Penguin withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book, do you think free speech is being curbed in India despite the laws of the land? What does it bode for the country?
A: Even though the constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression to every citizen, it isn’t a reality as recent instances are proving. Radical elements and powerful individuals lacking tolerance or the ability to face the truth are either protesting on the streets or taking legal recourse to put fear in those who have mustered the courage to speak out. I must, however, state that no right is absolute and no one can enjoy any blanket authority to write what one wishes to, unless what’s written can be backed by evidence. I am a staunch proponent of self-censorship and have exercised it while writing my book. Numerous acts of wrongdoings that harmed Air India (AI) were not included in the book solely because I did not have the supporting documents. It is because of this that I averred in a court in Mumbai that I will prove everything that I have stated in the book.
Q: This is a rare instance of a publisher pulling out a book. Did Bloomsbury speak to you before doing so?
A: Bloomsbury’s decision is unprecedented and unfortunate. What made it unethical was that it decided to get into an out-of-court settlement with Praful Patel by keeping me in the dark.
Q: What are you going to do about it?
A: I am baffled by Bloomsbury’s action, but not unduly perturbed by it. I will get the book re-published soon. I was on the verge of signing an agreement with a digital company for an e-book version, but as this company had inserted certain clauses to safeguard what they believed were ‘risks’ in publishing my book, I did not pursue it. I am in talks with some other companies now. I am already updating the book for a third print-run by adding the latest developments. I am overwhelmed by the public support on social media because in the current environment, everyone wants action against corruption. Some have suggested I join Aam Admi Party (AAP) and contest against Praful Patel, but I am not thinking on those lines.
THE WHISTLEBLOWER Startling disclosures on what led to Air India’s fall from grace over the years abound in Jitender Bhargava’s book.
A: The book is a narration of the tragic decline of what was once India’s iconic airline. During Patel’s time as aviation minister and V Thulasidas as AI chairman, the airline suffered the most. In a chapter dealing with the system of appointment of IAS officers as CMD and the power ministers wield in this selection, I have cited how Raghu Menon was dismissed overnight in the midst of the 2009 general elections and how Arvind Jadhav was appointed.
I have cited how some aircraft were leased even when they did not meet the specifications advertised in the tender and how more planes were acquired than Air India could afford or gainfully deploy. I have also mentioned how Air India was forced to buy costly gifts during Diwali for journalists, how Patel decided to offer tickets to the entire Indian cricket team and their family members for five years on winning the T20 world championship in 2007 and how an advertising campaign worth Rs 18 cr was released to highlight his performance on the eve of the 2009 elections by seeking contributions from all airlines and airport operators. All these were done with no regard to Air India’s deteriorating financial position. If Praful Patel believes that by doing all this and much more mentioned in the book, he has done no wrong, I will prove it in court.
“The book is a narration of the tragic decline of what was once India’s iconic airline. During Praful Patel’s time as aviation minister and V Thulasidas as AI chairman, the airline suffered the most.”
Q: Do you have concrete evidence of Patel’s wrongdoings or is it hearsay?
A: Every instance in the book is backed by documents. I have excluded reference to instances for which I do not have documents. For example, the erstwhile Indian Airlines A321 fleet was given registration numbers as VT-PPA, VT-PPB, VTPPC, etc, with PP standing for Praful Patel. But as I did not know whether the initiative for such registration numbers came from the minister or some sycophant official proposed it to him, I did not include it. Likewise, the way land in possession of Air India was given away to
GMR and GVK in Delhi and Mumbai for expansion wasn’t included because I did not have the documents to conclusively establish that the airline wasn’t given a fair compensation for the land transfers.
“Even though the constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression to every citizen, it isn’t a reality, as recent instances are proving. Radical elements and powerful individuals lacking tolerance or the ability to face the truth are either protesting on the streets or taking legal recourse to put fear in those who have mustered the courage to speak out.”
I took adequate care to ensure that the book was credible and all instances cited can be proved.
Q: Your book is a hot potato for many. Are you brave or naïve? Many of these allegations were raised by AI unions, but nothing came out of it.
A: Everyone at every level has, in some measure, contributed to AI’s tragic journey. I don’t regard myself as either brave or naïve, but just an individual with a fervent desire to let the world know how this airline was destroyed, what needs to be done to put it back on track and that the guilty should be held accountable.
The unions raised various issues, but they weren’t documented in the manner that a book can. It is perhaps because of the documentation that Prashant Bhushan has filed chapter 10 of my book dealing with aircraft acquisition as a supplementary
affidavit in the special leave petition pending before the Supreme Court.
Q: You mentioned on Facebook that Patel tried to obstruct the sale of your book at airports. Isn’t this an allegation?
A: It’s a fact that my book was not available at the Delhi and Mumbai airports. One would be naïve to believe that the decision not to allow an aviationrelated book to be sold at airports was taken by the book shops and no pressure was put on them.
Q: You also mentioned that Patel forced a TV channel to drop a programme related to the book. Which channel was this?
A: I am not naming the news channel, but it is a fact that after the interview had been recorded for telecast in the evening, it was dropped after Patel spoke to the channel owner.
Q: Will your allegations stick? Have you got any support from politicians?
A: Praful Patel is undoubtedly a powerful minister. It is not for me to say whether the allegations will stick or not, but all I can assert is that if each one of the instances are taken to the logical end, guilt can be established and those responsible for the injudicious decisions can be identified. I haven’t sought the support of any politician.
Q: Some say it’s easy to write this book after you’ve retired. But did you shoot down wrong proposals when you were AI executive director?
A: This is an interesting question and is put to everyone who writes or speaks after retirement, the latest case being that of a former home secretary making charges against the home minister. While in service, one is governed by a code of conduct and any violation of that can invite disciplinary action. The only option is to quit, but can anyone do that and become a social activist? There are many instances when I stood up for AI. In one case, a civil aviation minister wanted rejected candidates for the posts of air hostess and purser to be appointed; I said no. I also never allowed unions to bulldoze me into conceding illegitimate demands.
Q: Who is this minister? What other cases of political interference in AI have you mentioned in the book?
A: I have mentioned the name of Ghulam Nabi Azad, who, as civil aviation minister, wanted candidates rejected in the selection process to be appointed as air hostesses and pursers. Other instances in the book include AH Jung, former civil aviation secretary, wanting a caterer to be awarded a contract in London even though that company’s quote was higher than that of the catering agency selec ted by the tender committee. Then, there was Shahnawaz Hussain who wanted Kerala massage to be introduced on board AI flights…
Q: Has the situation in AI improved now and are the unions better behaved?
A: The airline has shown some improvement in its performance. But the improvement in revenues and load factors are more a consequence of Kingfisher exiting the market. I have stated in the book that systemic, not cosme tic, changes are needed for putting AI back on track and the management needs to be professionalized. It is regrettable that no action on changes that can bring sustained improvement in performance is being taken. With its high debt and mounting cumulative losses, it is difficult to forecast its future. I sincerely hope the new government, post-elec tions, will take a serious call on the future of AI. As for unions, the reality is that their clout has disappeared due to the marginalization of AI.
Shobha John is a senior Delhi-based freelance journalist